NOTE: This spoiler was sent in by foroceansblue who says..."The film jumps around in terms of geography and chronology, I am presenting the plot as it unfolded during the movie."
The film opens with Professor Walker (John Turturro) coming home to his wife Patricia (Amy Irving). Walker has a shiner on his left eye from a mugging. Walker and his wife are obviously estranged the two barely have a conversation at the dinner table. Walker says life has changed for him since the mugging, and he needs to now figure out what his life is worth to him. He wants to know what life is all about and wants to make changes. Patricia doesn’t respond, doesn’t know how. The two finish their dinner in silence.
We shift scenes to a bar in New York. Gene English (Alan Arkin) sitting at the bar with a drink, looking down and out.
His thoughts are interrupted by Troy (Matthew McConaughey) who has just walked up to the bar to order some drinks for his friends and himself.
McConaughey comments that even though it’s happy hour, nobody at the bar seems to be happy, least of all Gene. Gene tells Troy that happiness is for fools. Troy disagrees, saying that he’s very happy, and he knows he’s not a fool, because he’s worked for his happiness. Troy then tells Gene that he works at the NY DA’s office and he just won a big case that afternoon and he’s got the best life he can imagine. Gene scoffs at Troy and tells him a story about a colleague of his who thought he had it made. Gene’s colleague apparently had a very monotonous life, but one day, everything changes and he hits jackpot and wins $2 million in the lottery. This colleague quits on the spot and prepares to go home to enjoy his spoils. But friends and distant relatives start coming out of the woodwork, saying that they want a portion of the winnings. This guy also gets sued for $1 million by his mother-in-law, who claims that she prayed for him the day he won so she should get half the money. So instead of enjoying the money, this colleague of Gene’s is knee deep in legal bills. Troy’s mood is not dampened by the story he says that Gene’s friend’s good tidings came because of good luck and not because of hard work. Happiness from hard work is never cursed. Troy says he doesn’t believe in luck. He offers to buy Gene a drink and goes back to his friends to celebrate Troy’s win in court.
Not long after, Troy and his friends head home. Troy drives home in his silver BMW, heading down Minetta Lane (small, winding street in the West Village), thinking about how much he loves being a DA and putting the bad guys in jail when all of a sudden, something white flies across his windshield. Troy slams on the brakes and hits his head on the steering wheel. When he looks up, his temple is bleeding. He gets out of the car and sees that he had hit someone. He kneels down and sees that the body is completely inert. He looks up and down the street, and no-one is to be seen. Troy gets into his car and drives off.
Troy gets home, and sits up half the night drinking scotch and icing his cut. By the end of the week, he looks like he hadn’t slept at all in the past 5 days. A co-worker tells him that his boss is looking for him. Troy goes to his boss’ office and is told that he is getting assigned to a big homicide case. Troy accepts the case but is completely conflicted. Back in his office, a co-worker asks if Troy wants to give him a ride home and Troy tells him that he doesn’t drive anymore.
We shift scenes again, this time to a room in an opulent apartment where Beatrice (Clea Duvall) is smoothing the sheet on a bed. She bends forward to take a sniff of the white lilies on the bedside table and clears off the petals that had fallen off. Beatrice takes the petals to the balcony and lets them float down towards the street below. At that moment, Dorrie (Tia Texada) walks in and shows Beatrice a wig that she found in one of the closets in the hallway. Dorrie then reminds Beatrice that her favourite soap is about to come on. Beatrice tells Dorrie to go ahead and watch the soap, she’ll clean the bathrooms and the living room.
When the two are done cleaning the apartment, they go back to Beatrice’s tiny apartment. There, Dorrie finds the head of a doll on Beatrice’s shelf. One of the doll’s eyes is closed and the other is open. Beatrice tells Dorrie that she got the doll the day someone saved her from drowning. The doll was sitting on the beach, but the body was half rotted away, so Beatrice just kept the head. Dorrie says it looks like the doll is winking and Beatrice tells her that the doll reminds her everyday that she was saved for a reason and life will always turn out to be okay.
We shift scenes again, this time to Columbia University where Professor Walker teaches physics. He is deadly serious in class and doesn’t even crack a smile when a student makes a clever joke. After class, one of his students asks him if he can re-take a midterm. Walker says no, saying that someone who didn’t try hard enough the first time around shouldn’t be given a second chance. The student walks off in despair. Walker is unmoved. That evening, we see Walker sitting in a sofa in an apartment that is not his own. He is now living out of a suitcase, has separated from Patricia and is having an affair with a professor from the English department. Walker tells her that his life has changed since the two met. He feels freer and more alive.
He says that there is more spontaneity now, more adventure. He then asks if he could see her again, same time, same place, tomorrow.
We shift back to Beatrice and Dorrie, who are cleaning another apartment. Beatrice is cleaning the bathroom when she picks up a white shirt. She presses her face into the shirt and breathes in deeply. She also notices that the shirt has a hole in it. She walks out to the living room where Dorrie is and tells her that the architect’s shirt has a hole in it.
Dorrie is slacking off as usual and is reading a magazine. Dorrie makes a comment about how the rich never have anything to worry about. Beatrice says that everyone always has something to worry about. Dorrie smiles, saying that it’s so nice how Beatrice always sees the positive side of every situation. Beatrice confides in Dorrie, telling her that when she was drowning in the ocean, she had a vision: she saw a big white sheet, like a sail, blowing in the wind, and at the moment, a voice told her that everything will always be okay. That’s how she knows life will always be good to her. Their conversation is cut short when the door opens and the occupant (the architect) walks in. Beatrice tells him that they are just finishing up and offers to mend his shirt for him. He smiles and thanks her. Beatrice walks out of the apartment on cloud nine.
That evening, Beatrice walks home, the white shirt on a hanger. A gust of wind blows the shirt out of her hand and she watches the shirt fly up the white sail from her vision . And we hear the screeching of car tires. Next thing we see is Beatrice lying on the street, blood pouring out of her head, and in the background, someone (Troy) walking away and getting into a silver BMW.
We shift back into Gene English’s world. He’s under quite a lot of stress because his company is not doing well and division heads like him are being pushed to continue cost-cutting. It doesn’t help matters when one of his subordinates, Wade Bowman (William Wise) continues to exude cheery optimism. Seems like Bowman is always happy and always smiling, no matter what happens. By the end of the week, Gene is at a loss as to how much more he can cut costs. He decides to fire Bowman and wipe that smile off his face. Bowman however, takes the news well, saying that things always happen for a reason. He smiles at Gene and says goodbye. Gene is amazed, and a little annoyed that he didn’t manage to ruin Bowman’s day. At that moment, another one of his subordinates starts yelling, announcing that he’s just won the lottery. The man quits on the spot and leaves (this is beginning of the story that Gene told Troy at the beginning of the movie).
His outlook for life takes a bigger turn for the worse when he gets a call from his ex-wife, telling him that their son has been arrested for drugs. Gene goes to the precinct and bails his son out. He wants to talk to his son, but his son runs out without even saying thank you.
Gene goes home and starts to feel guilty about firing Bowman. The next day, he goes to visit his ex-wife’s current husband, who’s the President of his own office supply company. Gene asks that Bowman gets hired at the office supply company, but that Bowman never know of this request.
We shift scenes again, this time to a garage in Manhattan where Troy is selling his BMW to Walker. Walker asks Troy how he afforded a BMW on a DA’s salary and Troy told him that it was a present from his parents. Troy also tells him that he was selling the car because he no longer drives. Walker and Troy then takes a test drive around the city. They drive past a supermarket, just as Gene’s son snatches a woman’s purse. That night, we see that Troy has not allowed his cut from his hit-and-run to heal. Every time the wound starts to heal up, he would take a razor to cut it open again.
Meanwhile, in Walker’s old apartment, Patricia has packed up everything and is moving out. She is lonely and hurt, and seeks a neighbour for solace. She asks her neighbour whether anyone can ever be happy, and whether anyone can ever trust anyone else after getting hurt. The neighbour replies by saying that the heart will always heal, and time will always help make trusting someone easier.
We shift scenes to a flower stand, where Dorrie just purchased a bouquet of flowers. She takes them to a hospital room where Beatrice is recovering. Her head is bandaged and she is still recovering from other injuries, but she is doing well. The first thing she asks Dorrie is how the architect is doing. Some time later, Beatrice is discharged and goes back to her mother’s house for recuperation. A box of her stuff from her apartment is already there. Beatrice picks up the doll’s head, and sees that both eyes are now open. Dorrie comes by to visit and notices a distinct change in Beatrice. She is no longer optimistic. Her first words were that life is unfair. Beatrice says that her optimism before was a farce, and life is not worth it anymore. She says her eyes are open now and she can never turn back. Turns out that Beatrice went back to the architect’s house to bring him back his white shirt. The architect thanked her for the shirt, and also asked if she remembers where his silver watch is. Beatrice said that she put it in his bathroom drawer when she was cleaning and went in to the bathroom and retrieved it for him. The architect was happy to get his watch back, but let slip that he thought she had stolen it. Beatrice was crushed. Back at Columbia, Professor Walker is talking about irreversibility at that moment in class and then goes on to give out the results of the midterm. He notices that the student who asked for a re-take isn’t there, and makes a comment about how the student is late again. Another student corrects him, saying that the student is dead, committing suicide the other night. Walker is shaken at the news, no doubt thinking that it was his insensitivity that drove his student to his death.
In another hospital room, we see Troy, who looks awful. One of his friends is visiting, telling him that he got blood poisoning and was rushed to the hospital. Troy confesses everything and asks how he could ever look anyone in the face again. His friend suggests that Troy offer to help the girl he hit. Only at that moment did Troy realize that he didn’t kill anyone. He exclaims that he is one lucky man.
We shift to Carmine Street, where Dorrie is taking a walk. Beatrice is waiting for her and stops her. Beatrice asks Dorrie why she never came back to visit and Dorrie says it was because Beatrice became so depressive that it was not healthy. Beatrice says she’s changed her mind. It happened the other day when she was on fifth avenue. She was willing herself to step into the path of oncoming traffic, and gave life one more chance to prove that it was all worth it. Her eyes settled on a man across the street and everything changed when the man looked back at her, and smiled.
We cut immediately to Bowman’s smiling face. He is walking fast towards Gene English, saying hello and telling him the good news that he’s found a job. Gene nods and wishes Bowman the best. Bowman goes on his way and Gene heads to the bar (the one he was in at the beginning of the film). There, he sits down with a co-worker and orders a beer. Gene tells his co-worker that he got fired that day. He also mentions that he misses his wife and son. He muses that perhaps if he had at least waved goodbye to his wife when he went off to work everyday, she might not have felt so empty without him. As he sighs, Troy stops by as he is leaving the bar.
Troy tells Gene that he appreciated Gene’s story about his coworker, and although he still believes in hard work over dumb luck, he hopes that he recognizes lady luck if she ever comes his way.
That night, Gene gets on the subway to go home. He gets into the same subway car as Patricia. Both look forlorn and depressed. When Gene gets off at his stop, he turns back and waves to Patricia. Patricia waves back. The last shot is of a small smile creeping into Patricia’s face as the train pulls off.